hese days it’s become par for the course for cultural commentators to get themselves into frightful strops about TV producers “dumbing down” their output and resorting to pumping out lowbrow dreck in order to claw in viewing figures. A good example of this phenomenon was the BBC’s decision at the end of 2007 to reduce its in-house factual programme budgets – a move that went down like the proverbial lead balloon and had many broadsheet writers spluttering into their peppermint tea.
But the situation’s not quite as bad as all that. True, programmes like BBC3’s Me and My Man Breasts don’t exactly sound like the sort of thing that Melvyn Bragg would jump at the chance to present, but there’s at least one educational institution put out by the Beeb which, to my mind, just gets better and better. I refer, of course, to Horizon.
Like many people in Britain I had a comprehensive education but, coming from the sort of provincial English town destined to provide the nation with its next generation of burger-flippers, my school didn’t make much of science. For me, the word “quantum” was just part of the fancy title of an American TV show, a wave was something that a machine generated at the local lido, and I assumed that an electron was a fellow who repaired light switches.
Unfortunately, having left school so ignorant of science meant that whenever I pondered questions like “how did the universe begin?”, “what is consciousness?” or “why can’t chimpanzees speak English?” I drew a complete blank.
But fortunately for me and lay people everywhere, the makers of Horizon are there to plug the gaps in our knowledge. Horizon is like a sort of surrogate boffin parent who doesn’t mind being pestered by wide-eyed and curious children: it takes time to explain all those fascinating mysteries of nature in an entertaining and understandable way, using analogy, metaphor and computer graphics, and relating the headier stuff of science to everyday life.
The last series of the programme opened my eyes to all manner of interesting facts. It explained exactly what to expect should you ever find yourself trapped in a sensory-deprivation tank (you hallucinate like a Woodstock attendee), it revealed the most pleasant way to die (being gassed with pure nitrogen’s apparently far more fun than being hanged) and esteemed scientists such as Dr Brian Cox demystified some of the problems faced by modern physics (essentially, how gravity works is a bit of a problem for even the most gargantuan intellects out there).
And the series shows no lack of inspiration for subjects to tackle: everything from the existence of aliens to the odd properties of human memory is fair game for Horizon to dissect over an hour. So while it’s a shame that factual programmes, like the panda, are getting increasingly scarce these days, it’s a comfort that Horizon shows no signs of flagging, dipping in quality or disappearing from public view. And I know I’m not alone in being hugely thankful for that. Now, where did I put that book about string theory..?